New Research Suggests Causal Relationship Between Depression & Obesity
It’s in the Genes
In the medical community, it’s long been established that there’s a genetic component to obesity. Simply put, if heavier weight runs in your family, there’s a greater chance that you’ll have a more difficult time keeping off pounds. Notably, too, depression also commonly arises alongside obesity, which is understandable given stigmas surrounding weight and the psychological impact of the condition.
There’s more according to recent research, however. A study recently published in the academic journal, International Journal of Epidemiology, found that some of the same genes were associated in cases of higher weight and depression.  Ultimately, this points to a causal relationship; higher body mass index (BMI)—a measure of fat versus muscle content in the body—most likely leads to depression because of that common genetic underpinning. Let’s take a closer look at this important work.
A Large Pool to Work From
Under the direction of Dr. Jessica Tyrrell, a team of Australian and UK-based researchers wanted to learn more about the genetic underpinnings of both higher weight and depression. With this understanding, they’d be able to get a better sense of how these conditions are related. To do so, they relied on data from 48,791 people of all weight classes diagnosed with depression as well as that from 291,995 controls.  In this work, they localized on specific genes associated with weight status and mood disorders.
With so much material to work from, the team was able to draw conclusions with a good amount of confidence. Employing sophisticated statistical analysis programs, they sought to “uncouple” what the “psychological component of obesity” from the “metabolic factors,” or genetic and physiological components.  Included in this assessment were differences in such relationships between men and women as well as how higher weight at an early age might influence depression later in life. Notably, this was the largest study of this kind. 
Dr. Tyrrell and the researchers found a number of significant effects were at play when it came to depression and higher BMI. In line with previous work, there was a strong connection between these conditions; especially in women, depression rates were higher among those of heavier weight. With their approach, however, the researchers were able to take it a step further and conclude that “higher BMI partly causes depression.”  Further, those who thought they were overweight at age 10 displayed higher rates of the mood disorder.
While there’s more work to be done, this study was the first to be able to point out that not only are depression and obesity related, but the latter is actually a physiological cause of the former. It stands to reason that those who are overweight might feel an emotional impact as a result, but according to this work, the relationship is genetic as well. Commenting on the study in The Guardian, Dr. Naveed Sattar of the University of Glasgow, noted: “Of course, many other factors can cause depression, but…weight loss might be helpful to improve mental health in some individuals, whereas keeping leaner in general should help lessen chances of depression.” 
Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds
Dr. Tyrrell and her colleagues’ study further define the links between depression and weight status, giving us much more insight into the mechanisms behind them. What we can draw from this important work is that taking on weight issues can certainly be another means of taking on depression in this population. Furthermore, this work helps underscore the scope of the impact of being overweight; it’s more than just a physical problem and should be handled as such.
Luckily, doctors and health professionals today are also paying attention. Counseling services are a regular aspect of treatments or attempts to manage obesity or excess weight. And as difficult as this can be to take on, we know more about how to do it now than ever before. Success in getting to healthier weight only occurs with effort and tenacity; the most important thing, for the health of the body and mind, is not to give up.
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- Tyrrell, Jessica, Anwar Mulugeta, Andrew R Wood, Ang Zhou, Robin N Beaumont, Marcus A Tuke, and Samuel E Jones et al. 2018. “Using Genetics To Understand The Causal Influence Of Higher BMI On Depression”. International Journal Of Epidemiology. Oxford University Press (OUP). doi:10.1093/ije/dyy223.
- Davis, Nicola. 2018. “Genetic Link Between Obesity And Depression Uncovered, Say Scientists”. The Guardian. Accessed November 14 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/13/researchers-discover-why-being-overweight-can-lead-to-depression?